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Before regulation hits, a battle over how to build new US coal plants

By Moises Velasquez-ManoffContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / February 22, 2007


A half-hour car ride south of Farmington, N.M., a modest trailer sits atop a small rise in the spectacular landscape of mesas and upward-jutting rock formations. Known as Ram Springs to the locals, the hill is on the eastern edge of the Navajo Nation, a West Virginia-size tract of land spread across New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. A stenciled cloth hanging out front reads "Doodá Desert Rock." Desert Rock is a proposed 1,500-megawatt coal-fired power plant being sited nearby. "Doodá" (pronounced "DO-da") means "no" in Navajo – emphatically no.

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Worried about pollution and the prospect of getting pushed off their land if the power plant is allowed to be built, a group of Navajo, or Diné – "the people" in their native language – "sit vigil" on this windblown hilltop day after day. The protest group, now joined by a coalition of religious and environmental organizations, spotlights the growing national debate over the direction of US energy production. It's a pivotal moment; the human hand in global warming has gained increased recognition, but carbon regulations have yet to be put in place.

As America's appetite for energy grows, environmentalists and some lawmakers argue that new coal-fired plants should use the newest – albeit more expensive – technology available to keep coal-produced pollutants in check. But some in the power industry counter that guessing about future regulations and investing in new, largely untested technology is no way to run a business.

The fact is, demand for energy in the United States is projected to increase 1.1 percent each year through 2030. Economists say cheap and abundant energy is necessary to maintain a vibrant and healthy economy. Faced with ever higher oil prices and possessing ample reserves – more than any other single country – the obvious choice for the US is coal, say experts.

Indeed, there are some 150 proposed coal-fired plants across the country, according to the National Energy Technology Laboratory. But the vast majority of these plants, Desert Rock included, utilize what critics call "old" technology – pulverized coal (PC), rather than the technology known as Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC), which captures pollutants more efficiently.

Nationwide, the proposed plants are receiving scrutiny from lawmakers concerned with climate change as well as from citizens who would live near them. The utilities industry finds itself caught "on the horns of a dilemma" about how to proceed before regulations are in place, says Bruce Driver, an independent water and energy consultant in Boulder, Colo.

For their part, the majority of elected Navajo Nation officials support the $2.5 billion Desert Rock plant. They say it will bring much-needed jobs – 1,000 during construction and 400 upon completion – to an area with 43 percent unemployment.

"It's considered to be the largest single economic development anywhere in native America," says George Hardeen, communications director for Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., who supports the project. "It's going to provide jobs for everyone from the engineers to the burrito lady."